Daedalus Howell lives and writes in Petaluma. DHowell.com.
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Illustration by Trevor Alixopulos
The approach dovetails nicely with a larger county-wide effort to attract businesses in fields populated by creative professionals, which the Sonoma County Economic Development Board broadly defines as those working in science and engineering, architecture and design, management and finance, education, the arts, and music and entertainment.
Last month the EDB convened a "Creative Arts Focus Group" to assess how it might help this "cluster" become a steady economic driver.
Participants were asked to break into groups and answer questions like "what are the three biggest opportunities for growing/sustaining your business in the next three to seven years?" A consistent theme, writ large on the groups' self-adhesive flipcharts, was the notion of attracting and retaining talent through Sonoma County's copious lifestyle offerings. After all, we're "America's premier wine, spa and coastal destination," as our tourism bureau happily reminds. And, as the southernmost tip of the county, Petaluma is the gateway to this Xanadu.
"I do not have any specific statistics that would allow me to confirm your observations about creative professionals moving to Petaluma," says Ingrid Alverde, the city of Petaluma's economic development manager, via email. "That said, I, too, have met many creative professionals in my work with the city. I can say that Petaluma's quality of life is unmatched in the Bay Area because of its affordable living, mixed with its great location and its historic downtown. Petaluma also has a strong sense of community and many venues for art, music and theater."
Notions of gentrification arise every time a demographic shift occurs in a specific locale. Is that what's happening here? By the strictest definition, no. It was already like this when we got here.
"It feels more real and it doesn't feel so suburban. It's not like suburban sprawl," says WORK's Juliana. "[I can go] four minutes outside of town and be in real working farmland. There's a quality to Petaluma that's really authentic, partly just because of the history and the agricultural history. It has a diversity of people still living here. It's not Mill Valley."
The Mill Valley factor has long loomed over Petaluma. In the '80s there was a palpable sense of Marin County envy—we were so close yet so far away from the money, hot tubs, Beemers and cocaine. The '90s did no favors for Petaluma, resulting in a decade of "alternative" self-deceptions and dotcom dilettantism that made us look like Marin's self-mutilating younger sibling.
It wasn't until this century that Petaluma realized the intrinsic lifestyle value of its rural village roots and embraced it wholly. Couple this with Sonoma County's upgrade from "Redwood Empire" to "Wine Country," and suddenly we're trendsetters. But does influence necessarily lead to affluence, specifically of the kind that would make Petaluma fear it was turning into Mill Valley?
"I have a lot of friends who worry about that," observes Juliana, who is confident Petaluma will maintain its community-driven values. "But you also have to evolve as a town, otherwise you become a desolate ghost town."
Anyway, Petaluma tried gentrification before. The results were meh. In the early aughts, plug-'n'-play developments like the so-called Theater District were designed to emulate the urban density of cities—retail and restaurants downstairs, loft-like apartments upstairs. It's urban design by way of a prêt-à-porter mentality, and may attract a certain kind of Prêt-à-luman, but by and large the recent arrivals are specifically attracted to the older (by a century) west-side architecture and a decidedly small-town way of life.
More to the point, the families moving to Petaluma are not gentrifiers themselves so much as the fallout from the latest waves of gentrification occurring in the urban neighborhoods they departed. Demand for real estate in San Francisco has driven the market into the stratosphere. A three-bedroom fixer-upper in the Glen Park neighborhood near
Noe Valley recently sold for
$1.425 million. Homes in Petaluma can be had for one-third as much, though this is likely to change as inventory decreases.
"Homes are selling as soon as they come on the market," says Martha O'Hayer, a realtor at the Petaluma branch of Coldwell Banker. "Savvy investors are buying their homes now, renting them until they are ready to leave the City and East Bay with the intention of heading here when they are ready for a lifestyle change."
Homes on Petaluma's tonier, older west side start at the mid-$300,000s but can reach a cool million in the prestige neighborhoods in the "number and letter" streets. Comparatively, homes east of Highway 101, where track developments limned by strip malls dominate, hover between $300,000 and $500,000.
Seven months ago, therapist Rachael Newman purchased a home with her husband near Petaluma's downtown. Since the arrival of their son, they were rapidly outgrowing their houseboat in Sausalito. It was time to take the plunge (north—not into the Bay).
"It just felt like the town of Sausalito wasn't really quite right for 'forever' for us," says Newman. "Petaluma feels like a place where we can really raise our children and grow old." She adds with a laugh, "We're a cliché at this point, I guess."
Juliana puts it this way: "Honestly, this is the first place where I feel really at home. I feel like I fit in."
I concur completely. Sweet home Deadaluma, Lord, I'm coming home to you.